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Ousted From Power, Israel’s Netanyahu Plots Comeback

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TEL AVIV—Outmaneuvered by rival politicians after 12 years in power, Israeli Prime Minister

Benjamin Netanyahu

is already plotting a comeback, intending to challenge the new government on matters that could deeply divide the cross-party coalition.

Mr. Netanyahu, who now is expected to lead the opposition, plans to press the new governing coalition, which includes eight parties ranging from an Arab group to conservative forces, on sensitive policy issues such as settlement construction and empowering the country’s Arabs.

He is hoping the coalition will buckle under pressure, according to people familiar with his plans, which would send the country into a fifth election since 2019 and give Israel’s longest-serving leader another shot at power.

“I will wage a daily battle against this bad, dangerous left-wing government to topple it,” Mr. Netanyahu said Sunday in parliament, ahead of the confidence vote for the new coalition. “With God’s help it will be much sooner than you think.”

In addition to pressing domestic issues that could be divisive, Mr. Netanyahu said he is also looking to draw contrast between himself and the new government on the U.S. effort to re-enter the 2015 Iran nuclear deal, which Israel opposes.

“Bennett doesn’t have the international standing, the status or the know-how,” Mr. Netanyahu said. He added that Iran should understand he will “be back soon.”

Last week, Mr. Netanyahu pushed through plans for a controversial flag march in Jerusalem organized by right-wing nationalists for Tuesday that could inflame tensions and spark a fresh wave of unrest in the contested city—the first major challenge for the new government just two days after taking over.

Mr. Netanyahu’s comeback strategy carries sizable risks for himself and the country.

Ousted From Power, Israel’s Netanyahu Plots Comeback 2

Benjamin Netanyahu, center, arrived at court in Jerusalem for the opening arguments of his corruption trial on April 5.



Photo:

Oren Ben Hakoon/Zuma Press

He is on trial for corruption charges, allegations that Mr. Netanyahu denies. While he was prime minister, he had more and better options to fight them, such as trying to advance legislation that would shield him from the charges or attempting to influence appointments that could have sway over how the case is handled.

“It is not a good turn of events for him,” said

Amir Fuchs,

an expert at the Israel Democracy Institute, a Jerusalem-based think tank.

A fresh bout of political instability in Israel would challenge government plans to resurrect the economy after multiple Covid-19 lockdowns last year, if it were to interfere with the passage of a much-needed long-term budget after two years without one.

Mr. Netanyahu appeared to recently gain a political lifeline amid a deadly 11-day conflict between Israel and Hamas, but with that fighting came internal strife between Jewish and Arab Israelis that many in the country felt was the product of years of Mr. Netanyahu’s divisive rhetoric.

Israel’s cease-fire with Hamas has held after the two sides engaged in the worst bout of fighting since the last of three wars in 2014, but the militant group has warned it would launch additional salvos if Israel takes further provocative steps in Jerusalem. Last month’s conflict killed 256 Palestinians, including 66 children, and 12 people in Israel, including two children.

President Biden and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu have been working together for decades, but their friendship faces new trials amid the Israel-Hamas truce. WSJ’s Gerald F. Seib takes a look at key moments from the last 15 years of their relationship, and what might come next. Photo illustration: Todd Johnson (Originally published June 4)

Mr. Netanyahu has been the dominant force in Israeli politics for more than a decade. Since his return to power in 2009—he served one term as premier from 1996 to 1999—he has driven the country’s security, diplomatic and economic policies. In recent years he made Iran the country’s top security priority and forged normalization deals with several Arab and Muslim states, including the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain. He also halted peace negotiations with the Palestinians and helped to foster a world-class tech sector at home.

“He presided over the dominance of the right wing in Israeli politics and expanded Israel’s outreach to the world,” said

Aaron David Miller,

a former Middle East adviser to several secretaries of state and now at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. “He tried to create the notion that in effect, without addressing the Palestinian issue seriously, Israel would be able to expand its influence and status in the region.”

But after four inconclusive elections since 2019 that shaped up to be a referendum on Mr. Netanyahu’s rule,

Naftali Bennett,

who heads the right-wing Yamina party, and

Yair Lapid,

who leads the centrist Yesh Atid party, managed to cobble together a coalition from across the Knesset, Israel’s parliament.

On Sunday, lawmakers narrowly voted in favor of the new coalition government that includes an independent Arab party for the first time in Israel’s history. Mr. Bennett is slated to be prime minister for the first two years and Mr. Lapid will be the foreign minister for the first two years and then succeed Mr. Bennett as prime minister.

Ousted From Power, Israel’s Netanyahu Plots Comeback 3

Supporters of Benjamin Netanyahu protested June 10 in Jerusalem against the proposed coalition that would end the prime minister’s 12 years in power.



Photo:

menahem kahana/Agence France-Presse/Getty Images

The centrist Blue and White’s

Benny Gantz

is the defense minister, right-wing New Hope’s

Gideon Saar

is the justice minister and the right-wing Yisrael Beiteinu’s

Avigdor Lieberman

is the finance minister.

In his failed effort to form a coalition, Mr. Netanyahu also courted Israel’s Arab parties, including Ra’am, which is now part of the new government that has driven him from office. His right-wing religious partners declined to join a government that would rely on Arab parties’ support, but Mr. Netanyahu’s embrace of the tactic allowed his opponents to use it to replace him.

A key problem for Mr. Netanyahu has been his inability to maintain relationships with people who have worked with him, according to people who know him. “He serves one person, himself,” said

Michal Shir,

a former Likud lawmaker who joined Mr. Saar’s party last year.

Mr. Saar is a former cabinet secretary, Mr. Gantz worked for him as chief of staff of the army and Mr. Lieberman was a partner in a previous Netanyahu government. Mr. Bennett, the new prime minister, is a former chief of staff.

Though Mr. Saar’s New Hope underperformed initial expectations, his six seats in the March 2021 vote were enough to deny Mr. Netanyahu the majority he needed to form a right-wing and religious coalition. Mr. Netanyahu tried and failed to woo back Mr. Saar, who held firm after years of bad relations between the two.


‘It’s premature to declare that it’s the end of Netanyahu’s era.’


— Tzachi Hanegbi, a senior member of the Likud party

Mr. Netanyahu’s Likud party has described Mr. Saar as a political opportunist who left the party after losing support within it. Mr. Saar has said Mr. Netanyahu has been in power for too long and only serves himself.

Mr. Netanyahu was born in Israel but spent his high school years in Philadelphia before returning to Israel to serve in the elite Sayeret Matkal special forces unit. Mr. Netanyahu gained national fame after his brother, Yonatan, was killed at age 30 during a 1976 operation to rescue hostages at Uganda’s Entebbe Airport. After a series of diplomatic postings in the U.S., Mr. Netanyahu returned to Israel to run for the Knesset in 1988, and was elected Likud’s leader in 1993.

Mr. Netanyahu was first elected prime minister in 1996. At age 47, he was the youngest person ever to hold the title. He won a surprise victory over

Shimon Peres

by touting himself as someone who could keep Israel safe amid bombings by Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad, another militant group in Gaza. He was a fierce critic of the 1993 Oslo Accords between the Palestinians and Mr. Peres’s predecessor

Yitzhak Rabin,

who was assassinated in 1995 by a far-right Israeli ultranationalist opposed to the peace deal. Mr. Netanyahu had been fiercely criticized at the time for language some described as incitement against the premier. Mr. Netanyahu has called those criticisms hurtful.

In recent years, he and his wife, Sara, have been dogged by legal troubles.

Mr. Netanyahu was indicted in 2020 on bribery, fraud and breach of trust charges connected to allegations that he accepted expensive gifts from wealthy businessmen in exchange for official favors and that he offered two media moguls regulatory and financial benefits in exchange for positive news coverage. Mr. Netanyahu denies any wrongdoing.

Witness testimony in the trial is under way. He isn’t expected to appear in court again for several months and could face as many as 10 years in jail if convicted.

Mr. Netanyahu spent his final days in office dismissing his ouster as a conspiracy theory, calling it “the greatest election fraud in the history of the country, and in my opinion the history of democracy.” There is no evidence of any impropriety in the vote, after he failed four times to stitch together a coalition.

Mr. Netanyahu still enjoys widespread support among Israel’s right-wing and religious voters, but he could face leadership challenges from other Likud members who have been frustrated by his repeated failures to form a government. Likud officials said Mr. Netanyahu might convene a new Likud leadership primary soon to consolidate his power.

“It’s premature to declare that it’s the end of Netanyahu’s era,” said Tzachi Hanegbi, a senior member of Mr. Netanyahu’s Likud party.

In conversations with aides and associates, Mr. Netanyahu traces his troubles to those ideologically aligned against him. “In his mind, he was up against forces too powerful to beat—left-wing judges and left-wing media,” said one person who spoke to Mr. Netanyahu recently. “To him it’s an undemocratic coup.”

He has taken some solace, said people whom he has confided in, that his hero, British Prime Minister Winston Churchill, was voted out of office, too.

The Israeli-Palestinian Crisis

Write to Felicia Schwartz at [email protected]

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